“I’m not a good Jew.” This is a phrase we hear far too often. I heard it most recently when one of my 11th grade students shared with the group that someone in her high school’s Jewish club had told her she was a bad Jew. “I guess I’m not a good Jew,” she said. This paradigm often assumes that ritual practice is the sole determiner of what makes someone a good or bad Jew. Attend services more often, keep stricter Kosher, read more sacred texts – you’re a good Jew; and by default, you’re a bad Jew if you do fewer of those things. Yet, in Parashat Nitzavim, we see a Judaism that is democratized, allows for different community roles, opens the door for different interpretations, and makes clear what it really means to be a good Jew.
You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God — your leaders, your tribal leaders[, your head honchos], your elders, and your officials, every man of Israel, your children, your women, and the stranger who is among your camps, from your woodcutter to your waterdrawer — by your passing through into a covenant of Adonai your God, and with this oath which Adonai your God is establishing with you this day, so that God may set you up as a people for a divine [purpose], and God will be your God, just as God spoke to you, and just as God had sworn to your fathers: to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov. Thus, not with you alone do I establish this covenant and this oath, but [with] the one who is standing here with us this day before Adonai our God as well as [the one] who is not here with us this day.” (Deut. 29:9-14)
What is incredible about this opening line is that it tells us that the covenant is not just for the elites — the covenant of the Jewish people is with everyone including leaders, elders, officials, children, adults, millennials, Gen-Xers, Jews of color, those living with disabilities, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, Jews by choice, the rich, the poor, the engaged, the unengaged, the musically inclined, and the not so musically inclined — our people’s covenant with God is available to everyone. This moment of Revelation and truly being present is not just a moment that happened once and will never happen again. Each Yom Kippur, the Jewish community stands, that day, before Adonai our God. Indeed, this idea is reinforced in the Yom Kippur afternoon Haftarah, where the people of Nineveh, “called for a fast, and [everyone] from the greatest to the smallest wore sackcloth.” (Jonah 3:5) By example, this passage reminds us that everyone has access to God, and that all Jews have access and a relationship with God who established a covenant with us.
There is also a tacit acknowledgement in this moment: each of us will establish and interpret the covenant in our own way. Surely, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had their own interpretation of the covenant with God; shouldn’t we assume it is the same for each of us, especially if we, the Israelites as well as all future generations of Jews, were all present at the Revelation? After all, think of how different people can experience the same event and have widely divergent understandings of that event.
This passage also tells us what it really means to be a “good Jew” by reminding us of our divine purpose. In the Creation story, humans are created b’tzelem Elohim – in God’s image; therefore, our job is to act on our Godly nature by bringing more goodness into the world. To be a good Jew is to do just that – not much more, nothing less. Our tradition’s rituals, practices, and stories help enable us to that goal, but they are tools, not an end in of themselves.
As we stand at the entrance to this new year, this renewed covenant, to our renewed selves, consider this past year, and the High Holidays ahead. For what do you need to do t’shuvah? Who do you need to forgive? Do you need to forgive yourself? This Shabbat, go up to the Shabbat candles and bring the light of Shabbat into your heart. May the light we bring into our hearts sustain us through this High Holiday season. May we truly see everyone in the community, from the greatest to the smallest. And may we all be good Jews.
Note: All translations are author originals. A version of this post also appears on reformjudaism.org.